Proudly sporting stickers for the recently created "PARDOG," Palo Alto dog owners overflowed the small meeting room in City Hall Tuesday, voicing support for additional off-leash exercise space rather than harsher leash-law enforcement.
"Until you have addressed this underlying need you don't really know what this enforcement issue is," dog-owner Robert Greene told the Parks and Recreation Commission, which has been investigating the issue since May.
A member of Palo Alto Responsible Dog Owners' Group, Greene politely presented the commission with a petition that he said has 100 signatures supporting the creation of additional off-leash dog runs. The petition gives a defense of dogs, noting that owners walking dogs "provide a public service by patrolling the streets and parks of Palo Alto all hours of the day, rain or shine, throughout the year."
Dog owners also constitute a "substantial informal community" within Palo Alto in which the owners discuss a range of current events, from parenting and schools to restaurants and politics.
Dogs that can run and socialize with other dogs are happier and better adjusted, and city enforcement should be directed primarily "at those that actually cause problems or represent a real threat," the petition states.
The commission had planned to discuss off-leash dogs at its June 26 meeting, but due to time constraints deferred the issue until Tuesday.
No decision was made Tuesday, but Chair Paul Losch and Commissioner Daria Walsh -- who comprise the commission's "playing areas" subcommittee -- agreed to return with a list of alternatives.
The fate of off-leash dogs is a perennial issue in Palo Alto, which mandated leashes in 1955. It was rekindled in Dec. 2006 when a 5-year-old boy was attacked and injured by an unleashed dog at Hoover Elementary School.
And when the Weekly captured a photo of former Mayor Vic Ojakian and Santa Clara County Deputy District Attorney Jay Boyarsky with their off-leash (therefore law-violating) dogs at Addison Elementary School in March, the topic took off.
Dog owners are asking City Council candidates about their position on the issue, resident Suzan Stewart told the commission.
"There needs to be a very serious look at this issue," Stewart said, adding that she is a member of the "poop patrol" at Menlo Park's Nealon Park, where dog owners are allowed on an enclosed ball field two hours a day.
Palo Alto has less than one acre -- divided between Mitchell, Hoover and Greer parks -- where dogs are allowed off-leash. The runs, or pens, were designed in the 1970s and although they were groundbreaking at the time they are now outdated, according to Open Space and Parks Manager Greg Betts.
Stanford University banned off-leash dogs at the Dish in 2000, increasing the demand for dog exercise space.
Owners routinely flout the leash law at school grounds and some city parks. The city admits the law is not aggressively enforced, in a June 26 memo from Betts. Only 74 people received the $100 fine in 2006, according to city records.
In the memo, Betts' outlines three alternatives: increase off-leash penalties, create additional off-leash facilities or increase the size of existing dog-exercise areas.
No one on the commission or from the public spoke in favor of stiffer penalties Tuesday.
But the four-member commission -- with two vacant seats and an absent Joel Davidson -- seemed uncertain what, if anything, it wanted to do about the widely-acknowledged disregard of the law.
"It is a really hard problem," Walsh said. "Everything is already built up. I don't know the answer." She said she has a dog.
Accommodating off-leash dogs is trickier than, for example, helping soccer players find space to play, Commissioner Carl King said.
Soccer players are looking for a regulation-size field, but some dog owners might not be satisfied with a larger, regional facility, King said.
Even with a new dog park, they might continue to take their dogs to a neighborhood school, he said.
Losch, who owns a beagle, said he would advocate relaxing the leash law. Changing the law would require an effort by a group or the City Council to place it on the ballot, Betts said.
The commission does not have the authority to recommend changing the law, Betts and Councilman Jack Morton said. Morton is the council's representative to the commission.
For guidance, Betts suggested the commissions look at dog parks in Mountain View, Menlo Park and Foster City.
"If we're going to have a dog park, it really does need to be done right," Betts said.
Menlo Park's Nealon Park became a joint ball field/dog park in 2004.
The park is a success, according to several dog owners and Betts.
Dog owners take care to leave the park clean when they leave at 10 a.m., said Barbara Millin, a Palo Alto resident who frequents Nealon Park.
A group such as PARDOG would need to do fundraising if Palo Alto was going to add a new park, Betts said.
Betts said he met with neighbors of Peers Park earlier Tuesday. The nearly 5-acre park on Park Boulevard is scheduled for renovation and has a rarely used section near the train tracks that has been considered for a dog run, Betts said.
But at the meeting of about 25 neighbors, only one person supported a dog park, he said.
Neighbors didn't want a dog park to attract traffic and people -- and dogs -- from other neighborhoods, he indicated.
The commission is scheduled to discuss off-leash dogs again at its Sept. 25 meeting.